- Writing Around The EdgesA Praise Song for Wanda Coleman
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One of the most important voices of contemporary African American poetry, Wanda Coleman was born on November 13, 1946, to George and Lewana Evans in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In a career that spanned more than four decades, she published over twenty books, mobilizing her art as a site of social and political critique. She was awarded numerous honors, including the Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize for her collection, Bathwater Wine (1998), and was named a finalist for the National Book Award for Mercurochrome in 2001. Coleman’s oeuvre is distinctive for its raw, unflinching representations of the violence, poverty, racism, and profound inequality of the urban landscape. “My experience has been a fairly ugly one,” she observes. “I know many others whose lives are also ugly, and I think writing about it is necessary” (Magistrale and Ferreira 503). Dubbed “L.A’s unofficial poet laureate,” Coleman flavored her poetry with the sights, sounds, and brew of cultures peculiar to Los Angeles and the broader Southwest. She was deemed “the keystone, the writer who shifted L.A. writing [to] … a literature of place” (Ulin).
Though best known as a poet, Coleman cut her literary chops by experimenting across a variety of genres including poetry, drama, short stories, essays, novels, and screenplays.1 She became enamored of the “magic” of poetry in kindergarten, and had published three or four poems by the age of fifteen. She then tried her hand at science fiction, where she received her first rejection notice—only to arrive at the ironically sobering realization that, as a poor black woman in Los Angeles, she “was living science fiction” all the while. In the late 1960s, Coleman experimented with drama and had three of her plays produced at Studio Watts and other local performance venues; however, she found “the cost of theatre” too expensive and “out of reach,” especially for black playwrights, and thus opted not to pursue it professionally (Magistrale and Ferriera 493, 501; Mosure).
Married at eighteen and divorced by twenty-two, Coleman’s early writing career was shaped by the vagaries and demands of her hectic lifestyle as a single mother of two young children. She worked a variety of odd jobs to help make ends meet, including typing, waiting tables, and even editing a soft-core pornography magazine. Although she initially set out to write long fiction, Coleman eventually settled on poetry: “I could finish a poem in a relatively short period of time and feel that I’d accomplished something. Then I could perform it and accomplish something else.” Pursuing poetry was at once strategic and pragmatic, allowing her to “write around the edges” of a life riddled by poverty, racism, and single motherhood. A “catch-as-catch-can writer,” she composed poems while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting to get the car fixed. “When you are poor, you spend a lot of time waiting,” she observes. “I never wanted to waste that time, so I [End Page 190] always had a book or notebook handy, something I could work on” (Magistrale and Ferreira 493, 500–501).
From 1975 to1976, Coleman worked as a scriptwriter for Days of Our Lives, and became the first African American to win an Emmy for writing. Shortly after being laid off from Days, Coleman experienced an “artistic breakthrough,” where she came into consciousness as a poet. “The poems were coming on their own,” she recalls. They “literally jumped off the page.… It was as though the poems were writing me” (Interview with Mario Zaro). The following year, she published her first poetry collection, Art in the Court of the Blue Flag (1977) with Black Sparrow Press, marking the genesis of a prolific yet tumultuous career.
Ridiculed and deeply wounded as a child for her “kinky grade of hair, bright eyes, toothy smile, and dark skin,” Coleman became a crusader for exposing the evils of racism, noting, “This is my single greatest concern as a person and as a writer...